At a research station in the Humboldt Lab the Adaptive Digital Twin, a project of the Matters of Activity excellence cluster and the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, will be taking a look at the human brain. Three-dimensional models of the complex organ will be shown as holographic depictions. In clinical practice visualisations of this kind are used in, for example, preparing for surgery.
Holographic projections are a standby of science fiction series. They have now arrived in reality, as holographic displays in the Humboldt Lab will show. Two such “looking glases” can be used to inspect 3D models of the human brain – virtual twins of our most complex organ.
Visualisations of this kind are not only aesthetically pleasing; they serve medical purposes too. “They are something we work with on a daily basis,” says Lucius Fekonja, a scientific assistant at the Neurosurgical Clinic of the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the Matters of Activity. Image Space Material (MoA) cluster of excellence. He is in charge of developing the Adaptive Digital Twin of the human brain. The project is based in the Image Guidance Lab (IGL), an interdisciplinary working group of the Charité’s Neurosurgical Clinic and the Humboldt-Universität’s MoA excellence cluster headed by PD Dr. med. Thomas Picht.
“Adaptive Digital Twin” of the Human Brain
Different visualisation strategies are developed there for use in neurosurgery. The Adaptive Digital Twin of the human brain is modelled by means of a variety of data. Magnetic resonance images are fed in. So are the results of neuropsychological tests – combined with statistical evaluation to classify or correlate data and the clinical picture. “Structural and functional data is combined – the anatomy of the individual brain and the voice function, for example,” Fekonja explains. This means that the Adaptive Digital Twin is more than a snapshot. It is on the move and responds to changes. The aim, the project director says, is to simulate processes and interventions. „We can see, for instance, what happens if we stimulate certain parts of the brain.”
The Adaptive Digital Twin functions in much the same way as an online map service. It provides orientation and operating instructions on the virtual map of the brain. How well it works depends on the quality of the information received. “The greater the precision of the data, the more precise the model is,” Fekonja says. Precision is essential in brain surgery.
This three-dimensional map serves various purposes. Medical professionals can visualise the location of a tumour in the brain. One objective, Fekonja says, is by means of virtual navigation in the patient’s brain to make certain procedures unnecessary. The Adaptive Digital Twin can also be consulted during surgery.
Visitors Receive Insights into an Ongoing Research Project
The research station in the Humboldt Lab will consist of the holographic displays, two high-performance computers and a tablet on which, for example, films of operations can be shown. Once a week, says Friedrich von Bose, Deputy Head Curator at the Humboldt Lab, the plan is for an Image Guidance Lab scientist to relocate to the exhibition and work on the equipment there. “In this way visitors can gain an insight into work on three-dimensional visualisations and ask any questions directly.”
For the public it is an opportunity to gain insights into an ongoing research project. The brain may be complex but there are plenty of points of reference. “Many people have come into contact with neurosurgery at some point in their lives, maybe because they know someone who has undergone surgery for a brain tumour,” von Bose says. Contact with visitors is exciting for the excellence cluster too. What is the effect of their work on people who otherwise have nothing to do with neurosurgery? Is what they do understandable? What possible ethical misgivings might there be?
On the holographic displays research scientists can make different parts of the brain visible – the grey and the white substance, for example. “A tumour can also be highlighted as a three-dimensional object,” Fekonja says. Visitors are to be able to move the 3D models around in space to see them from all angles as if they were using a game console. The monitors also provide an opportunity to compare different states of the brain, including those that are due to illness. Different international working groups are working on digital twins, the project director says. What is special about the Image Guidance Lab is that applications take shape in the context of neurosurgery. “Advanced imaging methods are developed as a rule in basic research and take time to make their way into clinical practice,” the scientist says.
The Adaptive Digital Twin, in contrast, is developed and used directly in practice. Another unique feature is that the design aspect has been taken into consideration from the outset. “The design has to be as user-friendly as possible,” says Fekonja, who studied scientific visualisation and cognitive visualisation in Lucerne and Zurich and wrote his dissertation on theoretical medicine at the Charité. The “Matters of Activity. Image Space Material” cluster of excellence’s vision is to rediscover the analog in the activity of images, rooms and materials in the digital age with forms, design and materiality playing a central role.
Do We Recognise Ourselves?
So the Adaptive Digital Twin also shows what interdisciplinarity means in modern research. “For us it is a special object at several levels,” von Bose says. It opens up, for example, the debate on what the “scientific object” is in this installation. Is it the “looking glass” with the holographic projection? Is it the imaging process on which it is based? It is clear here, in contrast to the surrounding exhibits illustrating the history of knowledge, that it can be the very act of exhibiting which makes something a scientific object. The Adaptive Digital Twin poses once again the much-discussed question of the importance of images in science – and in medical practice. Visualisations play a central role in the relationship of trust between doctor and patient, the curator says. It could be that a doctor who in an explanatory conversation draws a map of the brain by hand creates greater confidence than if he or she were to refer to a high-resolution MRI scan.
The effect of the holographic projections on visitors to the exhibition will be seen in the Humboldt Lab. What are our feelings on seeing this digital twin? Do we recognise ourselves or do we feel like we are visiting Spaceship Enterprise? Are we delighted, amazed or even transfixed? Reactions to modern visualisation opportunities are also of interest to research scientists.
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|Date:||20. November 2020|